Pitfalls of "Self-Worth"
I found this little story online and it made me laugh (probably because it is so, SO true.)
“I was 11 years old when I realized I had no friends. …The Val-O-Grams—those special valentines students purchased and had sent to their best friends—were delivered to all the classrooms and everyone seemed to get ten and I only got one—and it was from my mom.
I was 17 when I started using crazy hair products because the statement I was making with my ripped jeans and worn boots wasn’t getting enough attention from my peers anymore. If they weren’t looking at or talking about me, it was like I didn’t exist.
I was 21 when I knew I was the worst missionary in the history of the Church. I wasn’t baptizing as much as others, I wasn’t called to leadership positions when younger missionaries were, and I simply didn’t feel the all-encompassing glow I once associated with missionary work and righteousness and following the rules.
I was 26 years old when I finally graduated from college and got a job. I soon wished that I could go back and start over again. Because I wasn’t traveling the world, playing in the NFL or making enough money to retire by 40. I was at a desk. And it appeared everyone else was living their dream.”
Today, I want to explore three pitfalls, three traps the adversary has built around the idea of self worth:
The first is an incorrect understanding of what self worth actually IS.
I’ve come to believe that one of Satan’s most insidious tactics has been to manipulate the definition of words such that concepts essential to our happiness and progression are sapped of power, twisted to mean something entirely different, or lost from our language altogether.
The word “worth” in its archaic sense, comes from a Greek word meaning “becoming.” Since then, the definition has devolved from “marked by useful or desirable qualities,” to “having material value,” to having a specific monetary value, to describing a level of income and personal possessions.
Most of the time, we know our worth can’t be measured by a bank balance; that there are worthwhile talents/skills/knowledge that can’t be exchanged for goods or money, that our worth is not determined by our usefulness. But I doubt any of us are completely free from the manipulation.
The next trap comes from believing self worth comes from the self.
One of my more vivid memories of second grade was a weekly class visit from the school counselor that we spent chanting “I am Loveable and Capable, Yes!” I think the theory was that affirmations like that built healthy self-worth; that if we kids repeated something often enough, we would come to believe it. It didn’t work for me then, and it still doesn’t.
But all this cultural conditioning (from our interactions at church as well as in the rest of our lives) naturally leads to a belief that if we don't feel confident and self-assured, it’s our own fault—that if we were righteous enough, humble enough, if we served more or complained less, if we could just stop making the same mistakes over and over again—we would feel the way we’re supposed to.
Sometimes, as the Savior taught in Matthew, “the Spirit truly is willing but the flesh is weak.” Our weak flesh may be our “natural man;” the particular temptations we can’t seem to resist, our bad habits and less-than-lovely personality traits. Or our weak flesh can show up as actual flesh. Far-reaching consequences of long-ago decisions, age and illness inherent in mortality, and bodies that let us down and just don’t function the way they were designed to can thwart our willing spirits just as effectively and just as painfully.
Other times, at least for me, the Spirit is willful though the flesh is well. I am sometimes rebellious. I am often stubborn. Sometimes I convince myself I’m right even when deep down I know I’m not. Sometimes digging in my heels is easier than facing the fear that my best just won’t be good enough.
I am weak. I am willful. And sometimes I think “if I can’t even measure up to my own expectations, how could I ever measure up to God’s?” If my self worth had to come from my self, I wouldn’t have much.
When the scriptures say that we see “through a glass, darkly”—the word refers less to something like a window or a mirror and more to something like a lens. The “darkness” is less about opacity than it is about distortion. Our belief that our worth comes from measuring up, from getting it right, from conquering our weakness—is a distortion.
There have been very few times in my life that I have felt truly worthless. Those moments have given me a profound and aching compassion for those of you who are thrust into that dark, place on a regular basis—or who feel like you never really leave it. I didn’t do anything to deserve that blessing. I came to this life with an innate belief in my own divinity and my capacity to do good. I also have a brain that by and large happens to make the chemicals its supposed to in the proportions its supposed to.
But, while I don’t often feel worthless, I spend a lot of time feeling worth less. What’s probably worse, I believe I should feel that way. I’m great at telling people to give themselves more credit, convincing them that what they see as failure is anything but, helping them make room for peace and grace and the journey of discipleship. But I somehow believe that all I’ve been blessed with means none of that really applies to me. Because “where much is given much is required,” right? Talk about a distortion.
The truth is beautifully simple, and simply beautiful: Although we are weak, we are not worthless. Even when we are willful, we are not worth less.
If there’s anything more damaging than expecting self-worth to come from the self, it’s thinking it comes from others. If the first is seeing “through a glass, darkly;” then the second is like stacking prescription sunglasses one in front of the other, squinting as hard as we can and then beating ourselves up because we can’t see.
Years ago, President Uchtdorf warned “we waste so much time and energy comparing ourselves to others—usually comparing our own weaknesses to their strengths.” (and he wasn’t even talking about social media!) Remember the meme from General Conference, where the perfectly artistic (and delicious-looking) instagram photo turned out to have been cropped from a shot of mostly burned muffins, sitting in a kitchen that looked like it had been hit by a tornado, in front of a screaming baby?
Elder Stevenson pointed out that on top of comparing our own everyday to everyone else’s carefully crafted, perfectly edited projections; we almost never see the full picture behind what they share. These comparisons are “filtered” in every sense of the word. …and those filters can be applied with our eyes and our brains even more easily than with our phones.
So, if self worth doesn’t come from ourselves and it doesn’t come from others, where does it come from? Most of you probably instinctively (or automatically) answered that question. Self worth comes from God. Okay, sure. But HOW?
In my experience self worth doesn’t some from God in the same way that sunshine comes from God. Nor does it usually come in the same way miracles come from God. I believe self worth—a true understanding of and confidence in our own becoming—comes from a relationship with God; from engaging our agency in small and simple ways, over time, with each member of the Godhead.
When we choose to pray, to be authentic and vulnerable with our Heavenly Father (especially when that authenticity means our prayers don’t look or sound the way we’ve always been told they should) that choice creates depth…space…for confidence in our identity as children of God to sink deeper into our souls.
When we choose to repent, to turn to our Savior over and over again with nothing more than a desire to desire to believe it will work, that choice weaves in and through our every day tiny strands of assurance that we are beloved enough to warrant His sacrifice.
When we choose to keep covenants, whether we are learning to mourn, developing courage to bear testimony, or changing our attitude toward a sacrifice, that choice opens just a little bit wider the channels that connect us to the comfort, teachings and reminders of the Spirit.
We have been commanded to “stand ye in holy places and be not moved.” (D&C 87:8) I believe that one of the most holy places we can stand is in our own becoming, our own self worth. It is holy ground, made sacred by our choices to engage with God and with the divine in ourselves. And it is a good place to stand.